Thursday, June 21, 2012

Census 2011: It's Made of People

For some, it’s that annoying intrusion one night every five years. For others, it’s a boring set of numbers that waste my taxpayer dollars. For a very special group of geeks and weirdos, the release of new Census data is like statistics Christmas. The “are-these-numbers-still-accurate-enough” insecurity of the last couple of years is wiped away in an instant, replaced with the delicious bouquets of fresh numbers, new knowledge, insights and awareness of things only guessed at.

Today the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the data from the 2011 Census, and for the geeks and weirdos like me, the mysterious sets of numbers all fit together to build up multi-dimensional pictures of what Australia looked like on that one night in August, 2011. These beautiful new numbers are already ten months out of date, but this is the best that we can do, at least until the brave new world of micro-chipped humans emerges. Then, the chips will report back to Control every eight seconds, confirming where we are, what we’re doing, and who we’re doing it with. Personally, I look forward to that day; it will ensure the responses are accurate. No more writing “Jedi Knight” in the field where you should’ve written Lapsed Anglican. The Census Chip will know all. 

Mwahahahahaha! Just kidding. Probably.

But until that glorious day, we have shiny new figures that have been released today, and armed with these, we can do all sorts of brilliant things. By counting everyone, all at the same time, we can see how many of what sort of people live where, so that we can ensure governments and councils provide the right facilities in the right places. 

The beauty of the Census is not in raw numbers or processed statistics or colourful graphs for powerpoint presentations; it’s about people.

For example, we might not want to build a retirement home in a new outer suburb that’s full of young families or university students. Equally, we wouldn’t build a new infants school in a small rural town where the population was declining and most of the people were over 45. Councils and Governments love this data; it helps them to plan.

My favourite part of the Census isn’t the who, when and where questions. I love the way a series of numbers can provide such a rich view of our culture and heritage. 

Religion is one of the hot topics in Australia right now. Can the Census shed light on the state of Australia as a religious nation? 

We hear far too regularly from the Stop-The-Boats brigade that we must be alert to ‘Creeping Sharia’, the insidious (and imaginary) infiltration into Australia of the traditional Islamic justice system. Since the release of the Census figures today, I can report that the Muslim population in Australia is indeed on the rise. In fact Islam bounces into 4th place in the religion countdown. Is this Creeping Sharia business a real threat to our way of life?

The Census says its unlikely. Compare the 2.2% that identified as Muslims with the 22.3% of Australians who stated that they have no religion at all, or the 61% of Australians who identified as Christian, and you’ll recognise how truly insignificant Islam is as a religious force in Australia. It’s not even the fastest growing religion in Australia: Islam grew by 69%, but Hinduism grew by 189%, and I'm not hearing rumours about 'Creeping Dharma'.

Meanwhile, the Australian Christian Lobby has already released a statement asserting that Christianity is not on the decline in Australia. According to the Census, the number of Australians who answered as Christians has dropped from 68% ten years ago, to 61% now. That is a decline, yet its not necessarily other religions stealing our Christian souls, no! In the same period of time, the people reporting “No Religion” increased by the same amount: 7%.
Of course, we cannot conclude that 7% of Australians who were Christians in 2001 have lost their faith in the ten years since then, but there's no doubt that the population has less Christians and more atheists.

The ACL's Lyle Shelton puts this 7% increase down to an "aggressive" campaign by an atheist group convincing Christians to tick No Religion. Unsurprisingly, that's not quite what happened. There was a campaign, but it's purpose was to promote honesty - and sanity - by discouraging people from writing "Jedi Knight" on their census form as their religion. It might sound ridiculous, but thousands and thousands of people worldwide have done it, and it reduces the accuracy of the data. In the 2001 Census, around 70,000 Australians reported Jedi as their religion, but only 55,000 in 2006. 

Remember, today's gift basket of statistical bonbons is just the first release in a series of data releases from the 2011 Census. There's so much more...

Go! Have a browse through the Census data. It's all about us. 

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